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National Weather Service Asks for Help to Face Climate Change Challenges

October 15, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
National Weather Service Asks for Help to Face Climate Change Challenges
(photo via Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — National Weather Service officials tried to convince a congressional panel Thursday that now is the time to prepare for escalating travails of global warming.

Staffing and technology needs will only grow, meaning any successes in weather forecasting in recent years could be short-lived, they said.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service.

Climate change has already warmed the Earth by 1.1 degrees Celsius, set to exceed 1.5 degrees by 2030. The World Meteorological Organization is predicting temperatures will rise an average of three degrees Celsius before the end of the century.

Uccellini said the National Weather Service will need new staff and technology to keep up with its goal of making the United States a “weather-ready nation.”

Weather-ready means giving advance warning and building systems to protect Americans against the higher rate of floods, heat waves, drought, wildfires and hurricanes that meteorologists say is inevitable as global warming continues.

“We are living in times where the demand for what we do is going to grow,” Uccellini told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The NWS operates with about 3,300 full-time equivalent employees. The agency says it needs about 500 more, most of them high-level meteorological scientists.

It also seeks more high-tech equipment, such as supercomputers, high-resolution weather sensors and phased-array radar. The equipment would allow meteorologists to look deep inside dangerous weather systems to extract real-time information, thereby allowing them to make better forecasts.

A proposal pending in Congress would increase the NWS budget for fiscal 2022 by $33 million, which agency officials say is just about what they need.

Although Uccellini said the NWS might be able to improve its forecasts, he offered no solutions to global warming, only dire predictions.

“We don’t have fire seasons anymore, we have fire years,” he said.

The NWS set its weather-ready nation goal in 2011, after the “Super Outbreak” of tornadoes in Southern and Midwestern states killed 348 people. The agency tracked 360 tornadoes in 2011, four of them rated EF5 for the highest wind speeds.

Their efforts received a boost in 2017 when Congress approved the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, which funded research and forecasting improvements, weather satellite and data innovation and coordination of federal forecasting with local governments and private entities.

By the time of the Oct. 20-22, 2019 tornado outbreak that caused severe property damage across the South and Central United States, the NWS had significantly improved its early warning system. It included more aggressive notifications through the media, the internet and text messages.

One of the 2019 tornadoes hit the Dallas suburbs, becoming the costliest tornado event in Texas history at $1.55 billion in damage. No lives were lost, which meteorologists credited to better forecasts and warnings.

The enhanced response won compliments from members of Congress Thursday.

“The weather service’s accuracy has improved markedly,” said Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

However, she wondered whether the agency could maintain its progress as staffing shortages among its highly-skilled employees might leave it unprepared for climate change.

“World class scientists are the beating heart of the weather service,” Johnson said.

A Government Accountability Office report last month named staffing shortages, retention and communication with employees as some of the agency’s top problems. Some staff members report high levels of stress as they try to cover for colleagues who have not yet been replaced.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., acknowledged improvements by the National Weather Service but asked that the challenges mentioned by the Government Accountability Office be addressed.

“No government office is perfect,” Lucas said.

Tom can be reached at [email protected]

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